(396c) Nature Inspired Chemical Engineering: Development of a New Course on an Emerging Topic

Coppens, M. O. - Presenter, University College London
Lepek, D. - Presenter, The Cooper Union
Lynch, M., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
In 2015, a senior undergraduate and Master’s-level elective course on Nature Inspired Chemical Engineering (NICE) was introduced to complement the research activities of the multi-disciplinary EPSRC “Frontier Engineering” Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering (http://cnie.org.uk)at University College London (UCL). This course has now been taught twice. We will share our methods in developing the course and the student experience.

The overarching vision of the Centre is to use nature as a guiding platform to seek transformative solutions to engineering grand challenges. Rather than ad hocbiomimicry, the NICE methodology seeks to first understand the fundamental mechanisms underpinning desired properties, like efficiency, scalability or robustness in natural systems. These mechanisms are then applied to achieve similar properties in engineered systems, while being cognizant that chemical engineering applications typically have different constraints from those found in biological systems. The NICE approach is systematic and of broad applicability, making it useful as a methodology for engineers to learn and practice in seeking innovative solutions. This prompted the development of a NICE course for chemical engineering students.

This course features traditional lectures and coursework, and is supplemented by active learning and new pedagogical approaches. These approaches include annotated journal article readings (with online question and discussion forums), laboratory demonstrations, and a term-long group project. The group project involves multiple written and oral presentations, which serve as milestones, where the students are given constructive feedback. Each project is different, driven by student creativity and interest in a particular chemical engineering application. The teams seek inspiration from nature to discover an innovative pathway to resolve challenges faced by more conventional approaches of chemical engineering.

At last year’s AIChE Annual Meeting, we presented our first experiences teaching the NICE course. Our poster at the meeting this year will give an overview of the course structure, and principally focus on the student-driven projects over the past two years. These projects illustrate how the NICE approach leads budding engineers to think beyond often-presented examples of biomimicry, such as gecko-inspired adhesive tapes and lotus-leaf inspired hydrophobic coatings. Projects vary from bioreactor mixing inspired by the hydrodynamic changes induced by tubercles on humpback whale fins, to protein-based drug crystallization inhibitors. Other examples include projects concerning the optimal placement and orientation of photovoltaic panels, novel gas sensors inspired by spider webs, and the intensification of polymerization reactors by seeking inspiration from pattern formation induced by ocean waves.